Greatest Mitsubishi Evos tested

The Mitsubishi Evo has progressed through ten versions (some argue more) in two decades. But which is the best? We find out

Snow lies piled at the edges of the road and, occasionally, a big pool of slush flows right across. But the car hardly seems to notice. There are chirrups and whooshes. Gravel loosened by a winter of heavy frosts is being ripped up by the tyres and flung at the underbody, while great head-snapping waves of turbo boost fling the car across the ground at an astonishing rate. This is the classic Mitsubishi Evo experience that I knew today would bring. But I didn’t expect to find it in this car. This is where it all started, the original Evo, and with it now being 21 years of age I’d just assumed it would feel relatively soft, warm-hatch quick and rather dull. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The speed, agility and control it exhibits are quite extraordinary.

I’m salivating at the prospect of trying the best of the breed back-to-back, but we’re on dangerous ground here. Naming the ‘Best Evo Ever’ is like opening a shipping container of worms. Do you get all 12 generations together (the Mäkinen is really a 6.5 and the 8 also made a half-step with the MR)? Do the stripped-out RS models or the more sophisticated GSR versions represent the best of the breed? Or perhaps the halfway-house RSII cars? Then there’s the nutty Zero Fighter edition…

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It’s a delightfully geeky but horribly complicated world. In the end we chose to go down the GSR route, reasoning that the spookily effective Active Yaw Control rear diff was hugely significant in the Evo’s history and was never fitted to the RS models (they used tougher plated differentials), which were built to be converted into Group N rally cars. There are also many more GSRs out there to choose from if you’re looking at buying one.

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We had to have an original Evo. It was launched in 1992 and set the mould for the generations to come: transverse 2-litre, four-cylinder, DOHC, turbocharged and intercooled 4G63 engine, permanent four-wheel drive, MacPherson strut front suspension with a multi-link set-up at the rear and a humdrum four-door body, with vents for the bonnet and a high-rise rear wing. It produces 247bhp and 228lb ft, and weighs 1240kg.

The II and III were developments of this platform, power rising around 10bhp with each generation along with chassis and aerodynamic improvements, all being homologated for Group A competition. However, we’ve skipped those mildly tweaked versions and jumped straight to the IV. By now (1996) the Evo is starting to look pretty wild, and this generation also introduces Active Yaw Control, an electronically controlled rear differential that can actively split torque from side-to-side to create a yaw moment and reduce understeer. Nowadays lots of premium manufacturers herald their ‘torque vectoring’. The Evo was there over 17 years ago. Power is up to 276bhp and 260lb ft, weight to 1350kg.

Our next contender is the most celebrated of all: the Evo VI Tommi Mäkinen Edition, also known as the 6.5. It was built to celebrate the great man’s fourth consecutive WRC title, in 1999, and benefitted from a faster-responding titanium turbo, a front strut brace, suspension 10mm lower than the standard VI and the quicker steering rack from the RS model. This is the ultimate ‘classic’ Evo before a whole new generation, based on the new Lancer Cedia body style, was introduced with the VII. New variants came thick and fast on this platform and we’ve chosen the very last Evo powered by the stalwart 4G63 engine to represent them: the IX MR in FQ-360 specification, meaning it has a wholesome 366bhp and 363lb ft, albeit weighed down by 1400kg.

Lastly we have the much-maligned Evo X. We had great hopes for this car when it was launched, but somehow it didn’t quite hit the spot. Mitsubishi tried to broaden the Evo’s appeal but forgot that its absolute focus was what made it so special in the first place. That said, the limited-edition FQ-400 version brought much of the aggression back, with wider tracks, stiffer and lower suspension and the small matter of 403bhp and 387lb ft. We’ll ignore for the moment that it was a not insubstantial £49,999 when new.SO TO THE EVO I. GOD, IT 
looks ordinary, doesn’t it? Narrow and upright, it’s a world away from the romance of the blistered-wheelarch Lancia Delta Integrale. Inside it’s worse, all shiny plastic and cheap-looking instruments. It feels like a hire car from 1990 and even the cool period Recaros can’t lift the depressing environment. There aren’t even any extra boost or oil temperature gauges to give you a clue that this is a little bit special. Don’t worry though. It is.

Twist the key and the four-cylinder engine does that reluctant Evo churn and then catches and settles to the classic deep blare. It’s not a particularly tuneful noise, but it does sound urgent. The five-speed ’box is immediately familiar: pure and mechanical, and the shifter almost seems to get sucked into gear with just a little guiding pressure. On these coarse north Welsh roads the ride is much more supple than that of later Evos that I know and love, and the damping and structure feel looser than you might expect, too. However, when you really ask the suspension to work, it rises to the occasion, smothering bumps efficiently and keeping the wheels firmly in touch with the ground.

Only the steering lets the side down. It’s not as quick as the later cars’, so you don’t get that instantaneous response from the front tyres, and it kicks back quite badly if you hit a bump mid-corner. No matter, because like every Mitsubishi Evo, this is a car you steer as much with the throttle and brake pedal as you do the steering wheel. Every lift, every squeeze of the brakes has an immediate and accurate effect on the balance, trimming understeer and even encouraging lovely slow-motion oversteer that hangs the car in stasis, waiting for you to use the power or steering to pull it straight.

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Couple this remarkable agility and adjustability with an engine that gets going at about 3500rpm and climbs with ever-increasing savagery to well over 7000rpm and you have a car that is devastatingly fast across the ground. This particular Evo I is running around 280bhp but you’d swear it was more, and the whistling, chirruping turbo sound effects are pure WRC. To be honest I’m absolutely shocked by its performance, speed and playfulness. An Integrale wouldn’t see which way this thing went on a challenging road and nor would something like an E30 M3. Harry Metcalfe later admits to Tworking pretty hardwto keep in touch in the 403bhp Evo X. Did I mention this car is currently for sale for £2500? Incredible.

The Evo IV has much to live up to after the riotous original. It certainly looks the part, and knowing that it has that clever Active Yaw Control rear differential in place of a viscous LSD, I’m expecting it to step closer to having the incredible turn-in response of later Evos but retain some of the original car’s suppleness. There’s certainly a much keener sense of purpose when you climb in and clock the huge wing in the mirror and settle into a deeply bolstered seat. The interior feels more modern but it remains a place of function rather than detail. The chunky-rimmed three-spoke Momo wheel feels great, though, and when that engine buzzes through the cabin, you know you’re in for a treat.

There are already evident threads of continuity in the IV that will run through all of the cars: the sheer breadth of the power band and the way the engine revs out to the limiter with real freedom, the fantastic accuracy of the gearbox and the excellent braking feel, and – the key quality – the malleability of the chassis balance. The IV ramps up steering response, reduces steady-state understeer and adds a little power-on oversteer on corner exit. Grip is also improved, despite the modest 205/55 R16 Bridgestone Potenzas, but that unique up-on-tiptoes feeling is amplified and the IV still responds faithfully to driver inputs. It’s a car that makes you want to brush up on your left-foot braking skills just so you can experience every facet of its abilities, and it flows with poise where the earlier car would be kicking through the steering and demanding greater concentration to avoid understeer.

However, there’s no mistaking the extra weight of the IV. It doesn’t feel as rabid as the original car in a straight line (admittedly this car is completely standard and the original has been tickled) and, even with the Active Yaw Control, you sense the weight in fast transitions. As an all-rounder it’s a much better car than the first Evo, but perhaps I expected a bigger leap. Some of the wildness has also been dialled out to make way for greater control. Perhaps that’s why the Evo IV delivered Mäkinen four rally wins and the WRC title in 1997…

The Evo VI Tommi Mäkinen Edition is a step change. It looks wider and lower, and no surface seems to have been untouched by aero additions or bodywork tacked on to stretch over bigger wheels and tyres. It is a brutally beautiful thing and if you think it’s a tad OTT, then remember this is a car born out of competition – if only the WRC gave car buyers something quite so extraordinary these days. It’s a real privilege to drive this particular example, number six of 250 official UK cars, which belongs to Mitsubishi UK and arrived at our offices with just over 200 miles under its bright white Enkei wheels. In deference to its gentle life on display we vow to drive it as hard as we dare. Tommi wouldn’t have it any other way. 

The Mäkinen is 13 years old but has a feel that is much more modern. The ride is firmer and the damping more tightly controlled, but it’s certainly not harsh once up to speed. More importantly, that hyper-agility that I remember so clearly has arrived in style. The quicker steering isn’t jumpy but the rate of response is fast and pinpoint accurate. Understeer is never an issue at all and the AYC feels more aggressive in pinning the front tyres on line and edging the rear just a few degrees wide as you commit to the throttle. Some people find AYC’s operation synthetic, but I love the agility it brings. It’s an intense but cohesive experience.

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Everything you touch seems to have been honed until its operation is smooth and seamless, from the steering to the Brembo brakes. Even Harry, who wasn’t a huge fan of Subarus and Evos in their heyday, has grown to respect and enjoy the Mäkinen, ‘It’s just so effortless to get performance out of,’ he says. ‘The clutch has a lovely elasticity, the brakes are so right and the smoothness of the steering… It’s just stunningly capable.’ That’s really the point – the Mäkinen doesn’t beat you up with an unyielding ride or bash the road into submission. It glides over the surface, digging in to find grip but breathing with the wicked lumps and bumps so that you can use all of its performance all of the time. And the view out over the bonnet vents, the vast stanchions for the wing in your mirrors… it just feels special. The Mäkinen deserves its status as a Mitsubishi icon and looks like stunning value at under £10,000 for a nice example.

The IX MR FQ-360 is faster, angrier and even more agile than the Mäkinen. By now the Evo has a six-speed ’box, Super-Active Yaw Control using a planetary gear set with a greater torque transfer capacity, and MIVEC variable valve timing. Let’s just say it’s tooled up and ready for a scrap. The steering is lighter and faster, body control is even tighter and the ride is a fair bit stiffer, too. The result is immense turn-in agility and a frankly astonishing economy of input required to blast across these wet, freezing roads at breakneck speed. However, if you examine the detail, you find that not so much has changed from that first Evo. There’s more feel through the steering and sharper response, but the overwhelming sense remains that this is a car built to cover ground very quickly and at the total mercy of the driver’s preferred style. Very few four-wheel-drive cars feel so alive.

At something close to its full potential on deserted roads across a snow-dusted Welsh mountain, the MR is pretty extraordinary. Some people find the Evo’s gravelly engine a bit characterless, but I love the way it builds and builds with ferocious determination. It’s the perfect partner to the freakishly agile chassis. Mostly it just soaks up the power and takes you exactly where you point it, but get that left-foot braking going and the MR allows you to slide into and out of faster corners, all four wheels ripping at the surface with no opposite lock required. It’s a magical feeling and the MR probably delivers those highs more often than even the Mäkinen, which is saying something. The six-speed ’box has a stringier, less satisfying action than the old five-speeder, but in every other way you can feel the progress made from Mäkinen to IX MR.

Sadly the X, even in its ultimate FQ-400 guise, isn’t capable of replicating those thrills. Sure, it’s mighty fast across the ground, the steering is crazily responsive, and grip and traction are superb. It will even do the signature neutral-steering Evo four-wheel drift, but somehow all the detail and most of the joy is gone. The new 4B11 engine is deathly dull and no amount of fireworks popping and crackling from the exhaust can hide that. The steering is fearsomely fast but almost completely devoid of feel and the suspension really struggles to deal with sudden mid-corner bumps or big compressions under braking, sending the car pitching and weaving when you expect rock-solid stability.

It’s the accuracy and consistency that’s disappeared and suddenly all those elements that gel so completely in the Mäkinen and IX MR seem to clash and fight for your attention. The fluidity is missing, with attention-grabbing but frustrating edginess in its place. Harry puts it best: ‘It’s just a different animal. Completely different. And not in a good way.’

It’s disappointing that the Evo line ends in relative disappointment, but it can’t take the shine off this group of simply brilliant drivers’ cars. Three weeks after driving them, I’m still in awe of the original Evo’s dazzling speed, and shocked (and delighted) that the early cars are so affordable. I just hope some survive intact and in relatively standard form, because they deserve to be remembered amongst the likes of the Integrale and E30 M3 – great homologation specials.

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Some people will never understand the appeal of a prosaic Japanese tin box with spoilers and vents tacked on, but if you love the simple business of driving and bringing out the best in a car then any Evo is a fantastic challenge and a great entertainer. Furthermore, time has done little to dent their outrageous speed and ability – and that’s a rare thing indeed. I’d love an early car with around 320bhp for sheer unexpectedness, a Mäkinen for its completeness and a IX MR for when I fancy going really fast. However, if I had to choose one, it would be red and have Tommi’s signature on the bonnet. Thank you…

To the Lancer Register (lancerregister.com), where we sourced most of the cars, and Jan Karunaratne, Darren Kember and Neil B for loaning us their I, IV and IX MR models respectively. If you want to buy the Evo I, email quicksilver.messenger.services@gmail.com. You’ll find the Evo IX for sale on forsale.evo.co.uk. Thanks also to Fusion-Motorsport.co.uk, who specialise in Japanese performance models and maintain the Evo I, and kindly delivered it to us.

How the Evo evolved

Evolution I October 1992

Power

Torque

Evolution II January 1994Power 256bhp @ 6000rpm  Torque 228lb ft @ 3000rpm  Weight 1250kg  Evolution Wider tyres, longer wheelbase, wider tracks, longer damper struts

Evolution III August 1995Power 266bhp @ 6250rpm  Torque 228lb ft @ 3000rpm  Weight 1260kgEvolution Higher compression ratio, new turbo compressor, larger front air dam, deep side skirts, new rear wing

Evolution IV August 1996Power 276bhp @ 6500rpm  Torque 260lb ft @ 3000rpm  Weight 1350kgEvolution All-new chassis, engine/’box turned 180 degrees, twin-scroll turbo, lighter pistons, metal head gaskets, Active Yaw Control

Evolution V January 1998Power 276bhp @ 6500rpm  Torque 274lb ft @ 3000rpm  Weight 1360kgEvolution Group A regs maximised with wider tracks, bigger bonnet vents, twin-plane rear wing, 17in wheels, four-piston Brembo front calipers with 320mm discs, inverted suspension struts

Evolution VI January 1999Power 276bhp @ 6500rpm  Torque 274lb ft @ 3000rpm  Weight 1365kgEvolution Minor styling revisions due to new WRC regs, forged aluminium suspension arms, extra spot-welding for increased rigidityEvo VI Mäkinen March 2000Power 276bhp @ 6500rpm  Torque 275lb ft @ 3000rpm  Weight 1365kgEvolution New titanium turbocharger, 10mm lower suspension, faster steering rack, 17in Enkei alloy wheels

Evolution VII March 2001Power 276bhp @ 6500rpm  Torque 282lb ft @ 3000rpm  Weight 1400kgEvolution New Lancer Cedia chassis, electronically controlled multi-plate clutch, active centre diff (ACD) with Tarmac, Gravel and Snow settings, hollow camshafts

Evolution VIII January 2003Power 276bhp @ 6500rpm  Torque 290lb ft @ 2500rpm  Weight 1410kgEvolution New six-speed gearbox, Super Active Yaw Control introduced to double torque transfer capability, carbonfibre spoiler

Evolution VIII MR Feb 2004Power 282bhp @ 6500rpm  Torque 294lb ft @ 2500rpm  Weight 1400kgEvolution Aluminium roof, new Bilstein dampers, lighter BBS forged alloy wheels, improvements to turbo and cooling

Evolution IX MR March 2005Power 282bhp @ 6500rpm  Torque 289lb ft @ 2500rpm  Weight 1400kgEvolution MIVEC variable valve timing, lower rear springs, refined S-AYC

Evolution X March 2008Power 290bhp @ 6500rpm  Torque 300lb ft @ 2500rpm  Weight 1560kgEvolution All-new chassis, 4B11 engine, optional ‘SST’ twin-clutch ’box or five-speed manual, Super-All Wheel Control uses S-AYC, Super ABS and Active Stability Control

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